Even before his plane lands on British soil for his state visit on Wednesday, South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, has made an impact on British politics. Though famously hostile to diplomatic niceties and white-tie dinners, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has seen fit to absent himself from PMQs and join the Queen in greeting him.
There are precedents, though they will not stop Brown’s critics from claiming he had ducked a routine duffing from David Cameron. But if that is the least controversial feature of the exuberant Zuma’s visit, Foreign Office veterans may breathe a sigh of relief. The banana-skin factor, real or imagined, is never absent from such high-profile occasions.
The bread and butter components of the new president’s talks at No 10 and elsewhere are obvious. Zuma wants to talk about the rolling crisis in Zimbabwe (Western “smart” sanctions are no longer helpful, he believes) which destabilises the region, UK visa policy, the Soccer World Cup and business investment.
A shrewd, if controversial, populist who has fought off rape and corruption charges, Zuma is expected to stress that — despite his left-wing power base — he rejects calls for sweeping nationalisation from the ANC Youth League. But the media has preferred to focus on five-times married Zuma’s choice of wife to accompany him. Unsurprisingly, the polygamous 67-year-old has chosen Thobeka Stacey Madiba, his latest bride whom he married in January in a traditional Zulu ceremony. It will be her first official trip as Mrs Zuma.
Ropey state visitors
Will such a colourful CV discomfort her hosts, not least the 83-year-old and distinctly monogamous monarch with whom the Zumas will stay at Buckingham Palace? Given the range of distinctly ropey state visitors she has greeted during her 58 years on the throne it seems unlikely. The Queen is long past being shocked by the expedient dictates of foreign policy and commercial interests.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia who paid a state visit in 2007 — there are usually two such visits a year — is a much-married monarch with at least 22 children. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe (1994) was always a controversial guest, whom the Queen Mother boycotted. For some so was the wartime emperor of Japan, Hirohito (1971), for others, George Bush. His state visit, the first by a US president since Woodrow Wilson in 1918, came six months after the 2003 invasion of Iraq — and prompted demos. So did that of president Jiang Zemin in 1999 — when police were accused of heavy-handedness — and Vladimir Putin (2003), the first official visit by a Russian head of state since Tsar Nicholas I’s highly-political trip in 1843. It failed to prevent war 10 years later.
As a pro-Western dictator, Zaire’s president, Joseph Mobutu, paid a state visit to Britain in 1973 before his long career had established him as one of the world’s great kleptomaniacs. He modelled his rule on King Leopold of the Belgians, a first cousin of Queen Victoria, who looted what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo as his private fiefdom, killing millions in the process between 1878 and 1908.
Mobutu died in his bed as some state visitors, including King Feisal of Iraq (1956) and King Birenda of Nepal (murdered by his son in 1980), did not.
Most notoriously, President Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania and his wife, Elena, were state visitors at the fag-end of Jim Callaghan’s Labour government in 1978.
Many were appalled that such a Stalinist dictator should get the red carpet treatment. But Britain was keen to encourage Ceausescu’s independence from the Russians and to sell him planes he could not afford.
Private Eye produced a memorable cover in which Prince Philip says: “And does he have any hobbies?” Elena replies: “He’s a mass murderer.” The Queen observes: “How very interesting.” She gave him a knighthood, later taken back. Mrs Thatcher gave him a rifle, BAe sold him some aircraft.
None of it saved him from a hail of bullets as the Soviet bloc crumbled in 1989. The Queen soldiered on. – guardian.co.uk